In a stage play, a telephone call can be a static, contrived device. Of course, as the title suggests, a telephone plays a prominent role in "Dial 'M' for Murder."
And, in the touring production at the Lyric Opera House, there's no danger of the audience having to settle for hearing only half the conversation.
That's because the disembodied voice on the other end of the phone is broadcast as loudly -- if not louder -- than the over-miked actor holding the receiver. This may seem like a niggling point, but it's indicative of how lost Frederick Knott's chamber-sized thriller is in the vast Lyric Opera House.
The saving grace for this production is Roddy McDowall's portrayal of Chief Inspector Hubbard, the detective who suspects that more than self-defense is involved in the murder of an intruder in a well-to-do London apartment. McDowall plays Hubbard with a brogue, a fatherly air, and a hint of the shrewd common-man characterization popularized by Columbo.
Needless to say, Hubbard's suspicions prove right. Like "Columbo," this is the type of mystery in which the audience knows the answers before the detective does. And what's involved here turns out to be a mixture of greed and jealousy.
The jealousy springs from a romantic triangle involving a retired tennis star (John James), his wealthy wife (Nancy Allen), and an American writer (J. G. Hertzler) with whom she had an extra-marital affair.
This should be a fairly tempestuous relationship, but there's no detectable sexual energy generated between Allen and either of the men in her life.
Though Allen projects an attractive, girlish, ladylike quality, Hertzler comes across as bland, and James merely seems interested in getting through the play's deliberately convoluted paces -- we never really sense a conniving mind at work. In this respect, far more interest is generated by seedy Michael Halsey, as the hard-up old school chum James hires to kill his wife -- a plan that goes awry.
Perhaps the clearest proof of the lack of tension and suspense in this production, directed by Edward Hastings, is that the murder scene elicited laughter from the opening night audience. (Laughter also erupted, more predictably, from a line about the police planting evidence.)
The performances are certainly partly to blame for the inappropriate response to what should be a chilling homicide.
But there's an additional problem that harks back to the matter of mounting a small murder mystery in a huge theater. When Alfred Hitchcock filmed Knott's play in 1954, his movie -- particularly the 3-D version -- emphasized the claustrophobic aspect of the married couple's life.
The husband has to be able to think on his feet because every time he turns around, he's confronted by his rich wife, her lover, or the inspector. If the production is truly successful, the audience should feel trapped in that apartment as well.
Instead, before McDowall's Inspector Hubbard arrives, it's difficult to care about what's happening on stage. And, unfortunately, Hubbard doesn't show up until late in the second act of this three-act show.
In the other period thriller in town, "An Inspector Calls," the text is enlarged by an innovative production that enhances the play's social themes. In contrast, in "Dial 'M' " the text is depleted by a faithful, but lackluster, treatment that's swallowed up in a venue as large as the Lyric.
'Dial "M" for Murder'
Where: Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave.
When: 8 tonight through Saturday, 7:30 p.m. Sunday, with matinees at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Through Sunday
Call: (410) 494-2712